The story begins with Martha Hale’s hasty departure from her farmhouse kitchen. She looks around, hating to leave her workspace in disarray, but her husband impatiently tells her to hurry. Mrs. Hale joins the group of people in the buggy outside. The party includes: the county attorney, George Henderson, the local sheriff, Henry Peters, his wife, Mrs. Peters, and Mrs. Hale’s husband, Lewis Hale. The small group arrives at a neighboring farmhouse and enters the kitchen. Mrs. Hale reflects that she has never set foot in the farmhouse, but wishes she had called on the inhabitants: John Wright and Minnie Wright. Mrs. Hale knew Minnie Wright as a young woman, but she has been caught up in her own busy life, and has not made the effort to visit Minnie in the past twenty years.
George Henderson calls upon Mr. Hale to tell his story of the events of the previous day at the farmhouse. Mrs. Hale looks on nervously as her husband speaks, aware of his tendency to mix up stories or to share unnecessary information. She reflects that this could make things worse for Minnie. Mr. Hale explains how he was driving by the Wrights’ farmhouse the previous day when he stopped to call on his neighbor. He had hoped to install a party line telephone for both their houses, but Wright hadn’t been interested, and Mr. Hale decided to try asking him in front of his wife. Although, Mr. Hale reflects, he doesn’t know that his wife’s opinion would have made much difference to John Wright. Mr. Hale entered the house to find Minnie Wright in her rocking chair. He asked after her husband and she calmly told him that he was there, but Mr. Hale couldn’t speak with him because he was dead. Mr. Hale went upstairs and found John Wright’s body in his bed. He has been strangled to death. Minnie Wright said she did not wake up, although she slept next to him, when this murder occurred.
Minnie Wright was then arrested and taken to jail. She is being held while the county attorney and the local sheriff search her home for any clues regarding the murder. They are particularly looking for any evidence that would point to a motive for the crime. The men dismiss the items in the kitchen as womanly concerns that will not provide any evidence. But before they move upstairs to examine the scene of the crime, Minnie Wright’s ruined canning jars of fruit are discovered. The recently completed canning project has been ruined by the cold weather because the contents have frozen and the jars burst open. Mrs. Peters says that Minnie had been worrying about just this possibility. Henry Peters immediately laughs, joking about a woman who could be so worried about something trivial when faced with a charge of murder. Mr. Hale acknowledges, “women are used to worrying over trifles.” Mr. Henderson criticizes Minnie’s messy kitchen and poor housekeeping, and Mrs. Hale immediately defends Minnie, reminding the attorney of how much work there is to be done around a farmhouse.
George Henderson gives Mrs. Peters permission to take some clothes and things to Minnie in jail. He tells her to keep an eye out for any evidence, and Mr. Hale immediately questions whether the women would know a piece of evidence if they found one. Once the men go upstairs, Martha Hale expresses her unhappiness that they would criticize Minnie’s kitchen in her absence. Mrs. Peters says that the men are just doing their duty in coming into the space and searching for evidence. The women gather together the items they will bring to Minnie and they notice the poor quality of her clothes, which reveals her husband’s stinginess. Mrs. Hale suddenly asks Mrs. Peters if she thinks that Minnie is guilty, and the two women discuss the strange manner of John Wright’s death. Mrs. Hale shares that Mr. Hale said there was a gun in the house, and yet this was overlooked in favor of the more brutal act of strangling John Wright.
The women discover an in-progress quilt, and as the men return downstairs they overhear Mrs. Hale wondering whether Minnie was planning to finish the quilt by the regular technique or by knotting it. The men again laugh at the women’s trivial interests. The men then leave to go out to the barn. As Mrs. Peters and Martha Hale examine the quilt, they observe an area of the stitching that is messy and crooked, unlike the rest. They suppose that Minnie was anxious or tired or otherwise upset when she was sewing.
As they collect the items to take to Minnie, the two women comment on an empty birdcage they find. The birdcage is notable for its broken door. Martha Hale expresses her concerns about not having visited Minnie in twenty years because she was aware of John Wright’s unsocial and stern character. She imagines the lonely life Minnie must have had with John Wright. The women look for Minnie’s quilting materials, open a red box, and are instantly repulsed by the smell from inside: it is a dead bird, its neck twisted to one side as if strangled.
The men reenter suddenly and Martha Hale conceals the box the women have just discovered. After the men leave, Mrs. Peters and Martha Hale reflect on stillness and loneliness. Mrs. Peters recalls a traumatic childhood memory of a neighboring boy who killed her pet kitten. Mrs. Peters acknowledges that she wished to hurt this boy in that instant. Martha Hale’s reflections are self-critical. She repeats how much she wishes she had visited Minnie and speaks of her own actions as a crime that went unpunished.
The men wrap up their investigation with no evidence to point to a motive. George Henderson starts to look through the things Mrs. Peters is taking to Minnie at the jail, but then stops, laughing that the things are only harmless, womanly things. Hidden among these things is the box with the dead bird inside. The men have failed in their search for evidence, but at least, George Henderson jokes, they found out about Minnie’s quilting project. He asks Martha Hale to remind him what the term was for how Minnie might finish her quilt, and Mrs. Hale replies, with certainty, that Minnie Wright was going to “knot it.”